Republic of Yemen

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Republic of Yemen

Type of Government

Yemen is a parliamentary republic that was created with the unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in 1990. The president is the head of state, and the prime minister is the head of government. Together with a cabinet of ministers they form the executive branch of the government. Yemen has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Shura Council and the House of Representatives.


Yemen is located at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula and borders Oman and Saudi Arabia. It extends to the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden to the south, and the Red Sea to the north and west. Within those waters lies Bab el-Mandeb, one of the most active shipping lanes in the world, which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Yemen’s interior is primarily desert and mountains, with a fairly temperate climate in the western mountains affected by seasonal monsoons, a hot and humid climate on the west coast, and extremely hot and arid conditions throughout the rest of the country. Fresh water resources are very limited, and dwindling supplies are an ongoing concern.

Known to the ancient Romans as “Arabia Felix,” Yemen is reputed to have been the home of the legendary Queen of Sheba and is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East. Part of the Minaean, Sabaean, and Himyarite kingdoms between the twelfth century BC and the sixth century AD, it was poised at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia along one of the lucrative spice trading routes of the time. The influence of Islam in the area, especially in the north, dates from the seventh century. Caliphates, or Islamic states, established a theocratic, or religious, political structure that endured well into the modern era. However, the futures of the north and the south of Yemen began to diverge.

North Yemen was controlled by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century and again in the nineteenth. It gained independence from Turkey upon the empire’s dissolution in 1918. The country then came under the rule of Imām Yaḥya (1904–1948), leader of the Zaidi Shiites. The Imām’s reign continued through his sons until 1962, when a military coup d’etat created the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and ignited a civil war between royalists (backed by Saudi Arabia) and republicans (backed by Egypt).

South Yemen had come under the influence of Great Britain with the capture of the port of Aden in 1839. That administration evolved into the Federation of South Arabia and the Aden Protectorate. The revolution in 1962 and ensuing civil war spawned terrorism and violence that resulted in the withdrawal of both British and Egyptian troops in 1967. However, by that time Yemen’s north and south had been divided. The People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared independent in 1967. The YAR was recognized as a nation in 1970, the same year the then-Marxist southern state was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Yemen remained thus divided for twenty years.

Although the PDRY and YAR agreed as early as 1972 that a union was desirable, it was a long and arduous process to attain that goal. Border skirmishes in the 1970s, a major earthquake in 1982 that killed three thousand people, and violent infighting in the south in 1986 were but a few of the obstacles to peace and unity. Unification was achieved, however, on May 22, 1990, with the declaration of the Republic of Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh (1942–), who had been president of the YAR since 1978, became the new nation’s first president, and the unity constitution was ratified by the Yemeni people in May 1991.

Government Structure

Yemen is a parliamentary republic with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The executive branch consists of the president (head of state), the prime minister (head of government), and the council of ministers. The president is elected by popular vote from a minimum of two candidates endorsed by parliament. His or her term of office is seven years. The prime minister and the council of ministers are appointed by the president.

A constitutional amendment ratified on February 20, 2001, provides for a bicameral legislative branch of government. This is made up of a House of Representatives with 301 members and a Shura Council of 111. Shura Council members are appointed by the president, and House members are elected by direct vote to six-year terms. Yemen has universal suffrage over the age of eighteen.

The Yemeni constitution calls for an independent judiciary, and the laws of the former PDRY and YAR have been unified for consistency. The Supreme Court is based in the capital city of Sanaa. The general populace, however, appears to be largely unaffected by the modern judiciary, relying instead on more traditional forms of justice.

Political Parties and Factions

The unification and ensuing political liberalization of Yemen led to the establishment of myriad political parties. There were as many as twenty-two at one point, but that number had diminished to approximately twelve by 2007. Of those, the most widely supported were the General People’s Congress (GPC), Islamic Reform Grouping (Islah), and the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP).

The General People’s Congress was founded in 1982 in the Yemen Arab Republic as a consulting body, rather than a political party. Saleh, who was president in the north before becoming president of the new republic in 1990, served as the GPC’s secretary general and maintained prominence in the party after leaving his official position for the presidency. The GPC was criticized by the opposition as not being truly national, a situation that came to a head with a brief civil war in 1994. Saleh attempted to assuage that condemnation by such measures as appointing a prime minister from the south in 2001.

Islah was formed in 1990, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar (1933–) as its leader. The party won sixty-two seats in parliament in the 1993 elections, and Ahmar was elected speaker of the House of Representatives, a position he still held in 2007. Islah is a conservative proponent of adherence to Islamic law. That conservatism was reported to take a more radical turn around the turn of the century, as certain factions within the party were rumored to cultivate connections to al Qaeda.

The Yemen Socialist Party was established in 1978 in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Marxist in nature, it was the south’s sole party until joining with the GPC to manage the transition after unification in 1990.

Major Events

Political tensions exploded into a civil war in 1994, during which YSP leaders tried to secede the south from the new republic. After the secession attempt failed and order was restored, the YSP had largely lost influence. It was excluded from the new government coalition of October 1994 and boycotted the 1997 elections. By the time it participated in the 2003 parliamentary elections, its power base had been sufficiently eroded that the party only garnered seven seats.

Tensions between north and south and, accordingly, those within their attendant political parties, have calmed in the twenty-first century. Resentments certainly remain, however, as evidenced by the assassination of the secretary general of the YSP by an Islah member in 2002.

Twenty-First Century

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and is heavily dependent on foreign aid. It is working to reduce widespread corruption and modernize the economy. Compounding its economic challenges is a population of almost twenty million people that is expanding rapidly. The increase in population presents a problem of an even more basic nature—water. Potable fresh water supplies, never in abundance in such a dry land, are dwindling rapidly because of increased demand and the effects of soil erosion and overgrazing. The cultivation of khat, a mildly narcotic plant Yemenis like to chew, also depletes the country’s limited water resources as large amounts are used for irrigation.

Terrorism is another twenty-first century concern in Yemen. Incidents such as the 2000 attack on the U.S. naval ship Cole have given Yemen a reputation as a breeding ground of Islamic extremists. The government has actively combated this image, expelling more than one hundred suspected terrorists in 2002 and prosecuting fifteen alleged terrorists in 2004.

Halliday, Fred. Revolution and Foreign Policy: The Case of South Yemen 1967–1987. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Ismael, Tareq Y. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen: Politics, Economics, and Society; The Politics of Socialist Transformation. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner, 1986.

Wenner, Manfred W. The Yemen Arab Republic: Development and Change in an Ancient Land. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.